Walter Hooper: A Faithful Steward

C. S. Lewis’s fame and influence have so steadily risen after a fall in the mid-1960s that he is now an established figure, valued well beyond his devoted Christian readership. Many of his works are classics, in Carl Van Doren’s sense of not having to be rewritten, and he has produced a vital literature, “news” (as Ezra Pound said) “that stays news.” Lewis himself is widely esteemed as one of the great Christian apologists of any age—praised by presidents, prime ministers, fundamentalist preachers, and the pope—perhaps worthy in an ecumenical sense of being regarded as a Doctor of the Church. And although we could call his work the work of a lifetime, we would be wrong; it is actually the work of nearly two lifetimes.

In his two-story Oxford home, a fully-attached cottage smaller than some postage stamps, there dwells Walter McGehee Hooper. Nearly 30 years ago—quite earlier than, and apart from, practitioners of the “Lewis Studies” industry—he saw to it that Lewis’s works would continue to issue forth, and his care, unflagging effort, and expertise continue to ensure the availability and reliability of Lewis’s oeuvre. In addition to writing three books and contributing much of his work to other people’s books and to journals, he has maintained the Lewis bibliography (a complicated chore requiring both diligence and vigilance) and, above all, has edited more than 15 Lewis works, most of them major. Among these are Lewis’s juvenilia (Boxen), The Dark Tower (a long, fictional fragment included in a collection of Lewis’s short fiction), Literary Essays, two poetry collections (the lyric collection being Hooper’s personal favorite), and especially They Stand Together: The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (on a par with, say, some of Frederick Pottle’s great work on Boswell’s papers). This year he published All My Road Before Me, Lewis’s only diary, and this January he set to work on a three-volume edition of selected letters. Especially noteworthy are Hooper’s major prefaces, introductions, and essays. Together they constitute a thorough and precise history of many of Lewis’s works, their composition and the circumstances of their first (and subsequent) appearances, and an informal biography rich in feel and nuance.

On the most important questions—Has his work been done well? Has he failed to do what he ought to have done? Has he done anything better left undone?—the answers, especially for those who know the facts, redound to his credit. Some have said that he intrudes himself excessively into his prefaces; others that he permitted, even if he did not invite, his audience to assume that he knew Lewis longer than was actually the case. But these matters are even more subjective than they are trivial. Hooper’s use of himself in his prefaces is almost always by way of recounting a useful or amusing anecdote about Lewis. (I have been among the many who, upon hearing Hooper tell a story to a group, have urged him to put it into print.) And whether in print or in person he has been as candid as he is sad about the brevity of the period he spent with Lewis. There are also the complaints (mine among them) that too many editions have been mere recompilations, including several pieces already available joined to only one or two new ones—but irresistibly enticing new ones. Yet these are for the most part collections of essays otherwise out-of-print in Britain or not for sale in the United States, and publishers do have interests that, after all, supersede those of a disinterested editor.

Finally, there are those critics who complain that Hooper has published too much of Lewis or, worse, that he has published matter more appropriately left unpublished altogether. But which works are these? The Dark Tower, which lends itself to all manner of disagreeable psychoanalytical interpretation (often telling us more about the reader than about the author)? Restored passages from the Greeves correspondence that evince a sexually-fantasizing adolescent Lewis? Or the diary, a volume that speaks to Lewis’s greatest single biographical and autobiographical gap and alone documents the life that Lewis converted from? Lewis readers—students, scholars, admirers, and zealots—have been routinely accused of “cultism,” and among these readers there are cultists indeed. But surely people who would care to know even the warts are not cultists. And it is odd that critics who accuse Lewis aficionados of wanting every little relic of the man do not make similar charges with respect to other authors, some of whose very laundry lists (or does it merely seem that way?) are grist for all sorts of academic mills.

In all, Hooper’s body of work warrants the assertion that, given the magnitude of his achievement, there is no greater nor more reliable authority on the life and works of C.S. Lewis than Walter Hooper.

Once when I asked him why he assumed such a burden so early in his life with no prospects for his own future, without remuneration or guarantee of success, when Lewis’s popularity was at a very low point, he responded, “It’s something I asked myself very often over a period of years, and especially when looking after Warnie [Lewis’s talented, genial, and devoted, but alcoholic, older brother] occupied me so much. My answer to myself was quite simply that Lewis was a unique and great man who wrote unique and great works which the world needed far more than anything [of my own] I could give it.” It was a risky decision that invited jealousy, frustration, and failure, but it has paid off for us as the beneficiaries of his achievement. For 15 years he has been a salaried employee of the Lewis estate (now a company administered by the Curtis Brown Literary Agency), and upon retirement he will receive a pension. But during the first ten years he received no pay and lived in near-poverty as a part-time teacher and as an Anglican chaplain to an Oxford college. Now he owns a large and valuable collection of Lewis manuscripts which has been donated to a university, to be transferred upon his death.

Converting to Mackerel Snapper

Yet his most recent and riskiest decision resulted not in another achievement, but rather in Hooper being “achieved.” In 1984 he visited Rome and met the pope, who had expressed a desire to “chat” with him, and in the summer of 1988 he came to Rome, permanently. Since then, he has been snubbed by some who no longer regard him as a “gentleman.” So he gleefully tells the story of Belloc at Mass, standing when everyone else kneels. “Sir,” says the usher, “at this point it is our custom to kneel.” When Belloc responds with an obscenity, the usher (without missing a beat) answers, “Oh, excuse me. I didn’t realize you were a Roman Catholic.” After telling the story, Hooper will proclaim himself proud to be a “mackerel snapper.” He seems more himself than ever.

He is a sensitive and attentive man, refined in manner. Though by no means fragile, he is perhaps naïve in bestowing so much of his time and attention on strangers who take advantage of his knowledge, his position, and his predisposition to be helpful. He has made some enemies over the years, though remarkably few, given how often he has had to refuse requests for rights to reprint, to gain access to, or to publish Lewis’s work for projects of dubious merit. (The New York C.S. Lewis Society, for example, had planned some naive projects that Hooper prudently and gently prevented.) Some have accused him of hero-worship, others of betraying the master. Yet during the 23 years I have known him, I have witnessed nothing but gratitude to, and affection for, Lewis. Nothing to confirm the “worship” charge (though he does have “heroes,” two being John Paul II and Mother Teresa). What is called “betrayal” is simply editorial integrity, as when he decided to publish The Dark Tower, demanded by Lewis devotees and scholars alike, or when he restored those passages written by the young Lewis to Greeves (the partial cause of a particularly ludicrous and febrile assault. His custom has always been not to respond to attack, distortion, or factual error with respect to himself).

Five other people have edited Lewis, and many have used his work variously. It is worth noting, too, that present American copyright law allows an editor to claim the contents of a book as his own (something that Hooper has promised in writing never to do), that he does not own anything he writes which in any way deals with Lewis or his work, and that Douglas Gresham (one of Lewis’s two stepsons and heirs) has absolute power to censor anything Hooper writes about Lewis or his work.

On March 27, Hooper turned 60 and still resembles James Mason or Denholm Eliot or (if a dear lady friend is to be believed) Tyrone Power (Hooper would prefer Charles Bronson). He likes movies (his favorite being The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, even if it does predate the rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a fellow former body-builder), Louis L’Amour, Jane Austen, singer James Taylor, and Mozart. He seems particularly susceptible to the charms of old-fashioned, exotically attractive, yet not unassertive women (South Americans, for example). He leaves no papal encyclical undigested and has just completed a reading of St. Thomas’s Summa. But his abundant good humor can be both broad and sly, shining best when accompanied by tobacco and bourbon. He inspires loyal and enduring friendships, perhaps the greatest of which is the one he shares with the noted philosopher (and Lewis’s lifelong friend) Owen Barfield, whom Hooper calls “Lewis’s greatest legacy to me.”

His original home is in Reidsville, North Carolina, and nearly every year he travels from Oxford to visit his brothers and sister and their closely knit families. He has strong loyalties to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where, before a two-year stint in the army and another two as an instructor in medieval English literature at the University of Kentucky, he received both his B.A. and M.A. degrees. In his junior year he became a serious Christian; in basic training he first read Lewis and immediately began a correspondence with him, exchanging some ten letters. When he visited Lewis, it was with contract in hand to write a book for the Twayne series on English authors. Instead, he became for a short time before his death the great man’s private secretary and, according to Lewis, “the son I never had.”

Auspicious Meeting

I could not forget my first meeting with Hooper. During Easter week of 1969 my wife and I were in Oxford, I carrying a letter of introduction from Professor Clyde Kilby, the godfather of Lewis interest in America. When we knocked at the door of the Warden’s lodgings at Keble College, a shabby, paint-spackled fellow answered and, very apologetically, assured us that Father Hooper would be down soon; we could wait in the ante-chamber. We did, for 15 minutes, after which that same fellow—this time in priestly garb and not at all shabby— descended to greet us. We were surprised and looked it; he was greatly amused and showed it. It was three in the afternoon. Would we care to stay for tea at four? This would allow time for my wife, thanks to some pills provided by Father Hooper, to recover from a particularly bad headache. He explained that he was staying at Keble to care for Kay Farrer, widow of Austin Farrer, the noted theologian and great friend of C.S. Lewis (and Hooper).

We had the tea, then wound our way through Oxford to dinner, and finally to a pub for very late drinks. The conversation was wide-ranging and non-stop—invigorating, uproarious, moving—for Hooper is both a great talker and listener. He was clearly over-burdened, tired and stressed by (we supposed) the tasks of caring not only for Mrs. Farrer but for Lewis’s brother as well. We parted, fast friends, at two in the morning. My wife and I had chanced to provide a respite, and with what we would come to see as his customary blend of ingenuousness, spontaneity, sincerity, and gusto, Hooper availed himself of it, generously inviting us to do likewise.

In 1974, while on sabbatical and living in Oxford with my wife and son, I saw how good a priest he was, whether saying Mass or preparing for a counseling session. The depth and thoroughness of his empathy was quite extraordinary, as I saw when he alone realized how badly an aging and ill veteran of World War II desired to visit his old Army base but was discouraged by its remoteness. Hooper would not allow the man to give up on the idea—ultimately to his great happiness. It is odd, perhaps, but strangely unsurprising, that those who knew Hooper as a priest did not at all know of his international reputation as an editor.

On November 14, 1984, Hooper met the pope. He had been heavily saddened by the efforts of many groups to use Lewis’s legacy for their own ends. These efforts and his resistance to them were “like a huge and heavy stone fastened to [his] heart,” he later wrote. “As I knelt and kissed the Holy Father’s ring, I felt something rush out of me. . . . I felt as light as a feather as I got to my feet and I knew that ‘stone’ was gone. Then, sorrowfully, I was aware of something that I had never bothered to consider. When I saw the look of shock and pain on the pope’s face, I knew he had taken my burden upon himself.” Thereafter, the two, to Hooper’s surprise, conversed. First the Holy Father asked if Hooper liked his apostolate; then, “Do you miss your friend Lewis?” Hooper answered that the gift he received from God in knowing Lewis had continued to grow and that the pleasure of the work had now “blossomed fully.” He concluded, “meeting you is the culmination of one, single, happy reality.” “Our Walter Hooper,” the pope replied, “you are doing very good WORK!”

Very early on some of that work was done by V quill pen in a flat on Beaumont Street near the center of Oxford. The pen was a comfort, Hooper has said, helping him stall for time as he framed his next thought; the flat was a steal, if you did not mind climbing nearly 70 steps and huddling in the one heated room (“cozy” and “charming” to be sure) when the outside temperature dropped. He went on to fountain pens (he will not use a ballpoint) and a typewriter. Some ten years ago he moved to his cottage on St. Bernard’s Road, and within a few years thereafter he was word-processing. Always a Stakhanovite, he now accomplishes an astonishing amount of work, with long spells at the machine or with manuscripts interrupted by trips to the Bodleian, or by correspondence, or by a phone call from (as I once witnessed) a bishop.

He inevitably walks to and about Oxford—he is an impressive walker—or bicycles to its further reaches. He knows Oxford intimately, of course, and loves it dearly, from the Kilns (Lewis’s old house) to the “Bird and Baby” (that is, the Eagle and Child, a pub where Lewis and his friends regularly met and where Hooper has installed a plaque of his own composition commemorating the famous Inklings). He routinely greets strangers, either in passing or when, as happens frequently, they simply drop by unannounced to learn about Lewis. And on a short walk (two miles, say, to a tenth-century Saxon church) he will be greeted by passersby with warmth and uncommon frequency. In short, he seems at home.

In fact, though, home has never stopped being Reidsville. His earnest hope is that, one day, he may retire there as a Catholic priest and in that sparsely populated parish carry on the work of an old priest who so helped and impressed him many years ago. I do know that, in his eyes, however significant his accomplishments (many lie ahead, and he is resolute) and however much he labors towards them, they can only add to the significance of his meeting with the pope, which itself so thoroughly encompasses the richness and centrality of his Catholic faith. A modest man who has never considered himself a “Lewis scholar”—indefatigable, amusing, and passionate—Hooper has always subordinated his achievements to the goal he has many times identified: Worshipping, and helping others to worship, the only real Hero we could ever have.

Author

  • James Como

    James Como is Chairman and Professor of the Department of Performing and Fine Arts at York College of the City University of New York (CUNY), in Jamaica, Queens. He is author of three books on C. S. Lewis, and a contributor to National Review. He founded the New York C. S. Lewis society. He has a PhD from Columbia University.

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